TOMORROW night the sick man of Gaelic football will lay down on the couch and take another hard look at himself and his reasons for being.
Kilkenny's county board will hear more of his woes after a series of cartoonish demolitions across all the grades. But yesterday there was more football to be played, pillory to be risked and pain to be suffered for those heroically undaunted county men who are prepared to take the field without the comforting assurance of hurl in hand.
Is there a lesser imponderable than the fate of the black and amber's big ball ambassadors -- the only mystery lies in the magnitude of the loss. The bookies had their destiny writ large, in comically long odds, before they took on Limerick in the league at Newcastlewest. With score difference hugely relevant in a congested promotion race, the hosts promised no mercy. The scoreboard stopped at 1-30 but at least Kilkenny were spared the added embarrassment of not raising a flag. With an hour played, midfielder Kieran Bergin found some room in the Limerick defence and kicked their only point of the day. Top scorer and lone scorer in one.
Damage limitation was their prime concern and would you blame them a week after being beaten 46 points by Fermanagh and conceding nine goals. On the previous Wednesday evening, Louth ransacked them, 6-34 to 0-2, a stupendous 50-point margin in the Leinster under 21 championship. Eleven players failed to show up and they had no substitute to call on. But it is still hard to imagine how a team can manage to concede so many scores -- 40 -- in an hour's play, allowing for stoppages. The following Friday the minors took on Laois and lost 6-15 to 0-1. The unholy trinity was complete.
Yesterday's beating was their fourth in the league and second worst, the 32-point margin slightly inferior to the 30-point loss to Wicklow. Against Waterford, they went down by 19. Limerick found goals scarce and Kilkenny crowded their full-back line to good effect. JJ O'Sullivan's goal was well protected but the result was still a massive haemorrhage of scores in the form of points, 15 in each half.
Kilkenny have pulled the plug on league participation before and may do so again but going too far underground could push them closer to extinction than spark a genuine and lasting improvement. In 1999, they withdrew from the league after some atrocious hidings, not helped by league restructures that placed them in the company of counties like Kerry and Mayo. They returned in 2008 and have been taking further heavy beatings since. Last year they failed to score against Leitrim. They have had only one win, over London, since re-entering the league and the usual margin of defeat is 20-points-plus.
For yesterday's match they made one substitution at half-time. Peter McBride, from Brian Cody's beloved Village, came on and while he didn't see much action, the fact that he was there was a miracle in itself. McBride came on in the Fermanagh match and flew to London the next morning where he's working. On Tuesday, he phoned the manager John McGrath to say he had managed to get a cheap flight back on Friday and would be available for the trip to Limerick. The cost of that flight and the effort in finding it was his to bear.
McGrath, a native of Ballyragget and selector on the last management team, is asked what could possibly be the appeal for a Kilkenny player. He cites the golf he plays to a lamentable standard but which keeps drawing him back for more because he enjoys competition and the challenge it sets.
After the stuffing from Fermanagh, he asked Peter Canavan to address the Kilkenny players. He duly obliged. "He complimented them on going on with it knowing they were being beaten every Sunday, the effort they made," says McGrath. "He referred to hurling in his own native county. Someone up there was keeping hurling going, and working off a very low base. Try telling them up there it is a dead sport, they will tell you different."
He has heard all the arguments. He was in the pub after the Fermanagh trouncing when news came through that Andre Villas-Boas was sacked as Chelsea manager. Someone suggested that if Villas-Boas perished after his team conceded two goals then McGrath's days were surely numbered having surrendered nine.
But on the Monday night after Fermanagh they trained in the gym and had 18, with others away in college and excused. They had the same number training under lights in Piltown on Wednesday. He gave them Friday night off on account of the journey to west Limerick. The bus picked up the first group in Thomastown at 9.20am, moved on to Kilkenny and had a last collection of troops in Ballyragget.
The trouble is that there are at least 15 more players McGrath would love to be able to call on. Primarily that is down to pressure from club hurling managers and officials and a general cultural indifference to football, or an obsession with hurling to the detriment of all else -- whichever way you want to look at it. Until this is challenged there won't be any radical change to how football is played and treated. "Club hurling is the biggest deterrent," says McGrath. "It is not Brian Cody and the senior hurling panel."
They have had odd flashes of promise. In November 1994, they defeated Limerick by a point at Ballyragget and for a while were higher in the table than the Treatymen and indeed Offaly. But that was their first victory since 1988. In 2005, they defeated Athlone IT in the O'Byrne Cup and a week later met Laois who won 5-22 to 0-1.
Last year Dick Mullins pulled out after 10 years' duty in one capacity or another, the last stretch as manager. He had embarrassing days too like that league match against Leitrim. Mullins is understood to have left because the support wasn't there from the county board. A meeting the football management requested with senior board officers to discuss a winter training programme took months to nail down. They planned to go back training in mid-October but this was long-fingered and when they did regroup it was January and they had no manager. Mullins had quit.
Mullins will put forward a proposal to tomorrow night's county board meeting seeking a restructure of the local football championship to avoid the usual shutdown during the summer. But the board is dominated by hurling-oriented delegates not motivated by the greater good of Gaelic football. Unless the executive is prepared to be radical, nothing will change.
Fixtures are also not worth the paper they are written on with an abundance of walk-overs blighting domestic Gaelic football games last year. The usual problem was the proximity of a hurling championship game a week after and the fear among club hurling managements of injuries. McGrath has a simple solution: play the hurling games the first weekend, the football the second.
The last two senior football finals have been played in October, mid-week under lights, many months after the semi-finals. Kilkenny has a sleek and streamlined hurling structure with 12 teams in senior and intermediate each comprising two groups of six. You get five games and if you finish bottom you enter a play-off that can lead to relegation or a way back into the championship. Football isn't a hindrance. In football, the system is utterly dysfunctional and tokenistic. There are three rounds of the football championship played already and the last one before the extended break will be in early April. No more football after that until the nights shorten.
The county has 42 clubs, 39 of those are regarded as dual clubs and three as football clubs. McGrath's Ballyragget, recently won the All-Ireland junior hurling title. But they have made some progress in football over the last 10 years and after losing four finals they won the junior championship in 2010 and reached the intermediate final a year later. McGrath, as you'd have to be, tends to be optimistic. He notes the revival of a junior team in Fenians of Johnstown which has reached the semi-final of the championship this year. Ballyhale had 33 togged for a game last week. This is not a concerted movement but rather some people quietly doing the work behind the scenes.
Nobody accepts that there is something intrinsically flawed in a Kilkenny footballer's DNA; if he were to get the same opportunities as his counterpart in Wexford or Laois, then he would compete adequately. "We have a core who are quite adept at playing football," says McGrath. David Herity, the Kilkenny hurling goalkeeper, is an accomplished footballer. Michael Grace and John Mulhall were also valuable players until brought into Cody's hurling squad.
Removing score difference has been mentioned to reduce the maulings and avoid a total obliteration of morale. The Limerick manger Maurice Horan suggested capping scoring difference after yesterday's outing. Bringing in a big name has been suggested too. McGrath says he would happily step aside if someone star-studded was willing to come in. But, ultimately, it has to come from within. If there's no will, how can they expect to find a way.
Sunday Indo Sport